Rutherford B. Hayes: Life in Brief

Rutherford B. Hayes: Life in Brief

Rutherford B. Hayes, America's 19th President, served as chief executive at the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the modern industrial age. He was well suited to the task, having earned a steadfast reputation for integrity throughout his career as a soldier and a statesman. Upstanding, moral, and honest, Hayes was ironically elected after one of the most lengthy, bitterly disputed, and corrupt presidential elections in American history.

Hayes's father ran a successful farm and whiskey distillery in Ohio but died ten weeks before Rutherford was born. Raised by his single mother Sophia, Rud developed a very close relationship with his brilliant sister, Fanny, who encouraged him to achieve the prominent career denied to her because she was a woman. With the help of his wealthy uncle, Sardis Birchard, Hayes attended Kenyon College and Harvard Law School. He then made a name for himself as a successful criminal defense lawyer in Cincinnati. There he married Lucy Ware Webb. Lucy advocated temperance and abolition and was a strong Methodist who placed more emphasis on good works than on being "born again." She deeply influenced her husband in what became a close marital bond. After marriage, Hayes became a stronger antislavery advocate and a teetotaler following his move to the White House, and he regularly attended religious services with Lucy, though he never joined a church.

Patriot of the Union

When the Civil War broke out, Hayes was already nearly 40 years old and the father of three children, with a fourth on the way. Nevertheless, he was one of the first three-year volunteers, stating that he would rather die in the conflict than live having done nothing for the Union. Using his political connections, Hayes was appointed a major in the 23rd Ohio Volunteers. An officer with no military experience, he learned quickly, worked hard, and with his "intense and ferocious" demeanor on the battlefield gained the respect of the enlisted men and his superiors. At the Battle of Opequon Creek, for example, Hayes led the charge through a morass, turning the tide of battle. 

Wounded five times in the war, Hayes kept leading his men into battle. By the end of the conflict, he was a brigadier general—later breveted major general for "gallant and distinguished services." While part of a military campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, he was nominated for the U.S. House of Representatives. Hayes refused to return to take to the stump, stating that "an officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped." That statement was worth all the speeches he could have made. Hayes won the election, and the war was over before the first session of Congress met on in December 1865.

Road to the White House

After the Civil War, Hayes served as member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1865-1867) and then as governor of Ohio (1868-1872, 1876-1877). By 1876, Republicans recognized that the scrupulous Hayes—a war hero from a populous swing state and a candidate acceptable to the major factions in the Republican Party--was presidential material. His simple "availability" played a major role in ultimately securing Hayes the nomination, but he nevertheless faced a difficult campaign. The nation was in the midst of an economic depression, the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant was tarnished by scandals, and Democratic opponent Samuel J. Tilden of New York was a superb political organizer with a reputation for reform. 

On Election Day, Tilden garnered more than 250,000 popular votes, but the vote in three southern states was close enough for both Republicans and Democrats to claim them—and with those states, the presidency. To decide who carried those states, Congress set up a special commission that awarded the disputed electoral college votes to Hayes, making him the winner. Outraged and frustrated, his opponents dubbed Hayes "Rutherfraud" and "His Fraudulency." Indeed, historians and political pundits (especially after the extremely fraught and surprisingly similar presidential election of 2000) have long argued over the extent to which Hayes became President as the result of a supposed “fraud of the century”—or, at the least, a “corrupt bargain” to end Reconstruction. Despite these debates, it is doubtful that Hayes struck any type of explicit bargain or deal—even if the result of his becoming President did result in the final effective abandonment of federal Reconstruction. 

The Hayes Presidency

Hayes's inaugural address was conciliatory in tone and addressed specific problems. To alleviate hard times, he backed existing legislation that called for the nation's return to the gold standard by 1879. To eliminate political corruption, he advocated a nonpartisan reformed civil service, observing that "he serves his party best who serves his country best." To conciliate white southerners, Hayes said southern states should have local self-government, but that those governments must obey the entire Constitution, including the Reconstruction amendments. Perhaps because Hayes had combat experience, he wished to arbitrate disputes with other nations rather than going to war.

As President, Hayes sought to implement the ideas and policies of his inaugural address. He had previously supported radical Reconstruction legislation that aimed to secure the rights of black citizens. By 1877, however, Hayes believed that military occupation had bred hatred among white southerners and had prevented the nation from reuniting. Actually, Reconstruction was virtually over when Hayes took office in March 1877, with federal troops protecting Republican governments only in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Columbia, South Carolina. Reconstruction ended completely when, within two months of his inauguration, Hayes ordered those federal troops to their barracks--but only after Louisiana and South Carolina authorities pledged to respect the civil and voting rights of African Americans. These promises were, unsurprisingly, soon broken, and white supremacists and the Democratic Party asserted total dominance over the South. By the 1890s, the Democratic hold on the South resulted in a nearly complete denial of voting rights for blacks and a segregated society until the 1960s.

Hayes was a patient and a gradual reformer. He feared that sweeping changes were often not lasting and was satisfied with smaller incremental gains. He had great faith in education as the key to prosperity and harmonious relations among diverse racial and ethnic groups. He did not attempt to reform the entire civil service but concentrated on one major office, demonstrating that open competitive examinations did, in fact, reap better workers. Likewise, he did not attack all senators who used elections to reward their supporters, but only New York’s Roscoe Conkling, whom he considered imperious and obnoxious.

The death of Abraham Lincoln, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and the failures of Ulysses S. Grant had left the presidency in a weakened state. Hayes helped to restore the power of the executive branch by defeating Conkling and the idea of "senatorial courtesy," which claimed for senators the right to appoint civil servants in their states. He also defeated an attempt by the Democratic-controlled Congress to force him to accept unwanted legislation by attaching amendments—riders—to necessary appropriations bills. By the time Hayes left office, senators could suggest, but not dictate, the appointment of officers; at the same time, the veto power of the President remained intact. Hayes therefore helped restore prestige to the presidency, heal some of the wounds left by the Civil War, and strengthen the Republican Party sufficiently to win the election of 1880.

In his very active retirement Hayes continued to struggle for equal educational opportunities for all children. He also was active in the prison reform movement.